To the outsider, Buddhism can be a bewildering religion. All the more so in Thailand, where the strong symbolism of local folk religion has mixed with the Theravada Buddhism which came to Thailand prior to the 13th century. Other elements of a wider spiritual world show themselves. Temples replete with Buddha images will also contain architectural features intended to ward off evil spirits. Regardless of the school or symbolism, the architecture and attention to detail displayed in the 40,000 temples, or “wat”s, in Thailand is undeniable. Seemingly every inch of some structures are covered in elaborate reliefs in stone or gold or wood.
The layout of each is different, but the general features of a teaching hall, the tower (or stupa) usually said to contain a relic of some significance, and other associated buildings. The bells, statues, roofline finials, guardian dragons and other features can be found everywhere, and all are unique. Every temple exhibits an impressive uniqueness and distinction of craftsmanship over conformity.
From guardian lions and dragons to the endless scrollwork and reliefs on buildings, walls, doors and rooftops, the detail simply has to be seen … and seen in person … to be believed. There is a call to stay, if for nothing else to contemplate the sheer amount of work and love put into these sites.
At every temple, there are also bells. Ringing the bell is a reminder to be present. To focus on the present. It is a compelling, if futile call for most of the camera toting masses, both Thai and foreigner alike. People are as likely to kneel in front of a Buddha to pray as they are to get a better angle for a selfie.
The age of these places can occasionally be obvious, as in the case of the Wat Chedi Luang Woriwihan in downtown Chiang Mai. Many of these temples are far older than the Western eye might initially perceive. Damaged by an earthquake in 1545, the enormous stupa at Wat Chedi Luang is surrounded by other temples and halls, some of which contain images of the Buddha dating from the 14oo’s.
Still, after the centuries, many of the carvings and statues retain the artistry and astounding detail with which they were crafted.
Throughout the city, these temples and the monks that inhabit them are slowly being surrounded by the creeping advance of modern technology. The skyline of stupas and roof finials now is crowded with wires. Monks, dressed in their distinctive orange robes, pack into taxis and can be found in the most modern shopping malls. Standing in the shadows of these ancient temples, they can often be seen texting on smart phones.
We visited these temples much like many westerners, wide-eyed and mouths agape, but comprehending little. For all the things we don’t know and will never understand about Buddhism and the beautiful temples we were privileged to visit, there are some things which are universally understood.